The Scottish Parliament has voted to pass the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. In due course, it will receive Royal Assent. Owner-occupier crofters will be able to decroft, and the Scottish Government will breathe a sigh of relief that the decrofting debacle has been buried. However, this bill has been far from the Scottish Government’s finest hour. The bill has added a further layer of complexity to a legislative framework I have previously, publicly, labelled a mess and a shambles. The Act will result in the Crofting Commission processing applications once again, but the decrofting provisions are now so incomprehensible that it can only be a matter of time before they are challenged in the Courts. Then we shall hear accusations that solicitors are getting fat on the ever-diminishing bank accounts of crofters. The time and effort taken by myself and by other professionals in this field indicate that we have an interest in clarifying legislation to avoid crofters facing high legal costs. Yet the Scottish Government saw fit to ignore all submissions and suggestions, however helpful they may have been. The quality and clarity of the Bill could have been far improved, had the Scottish Government accepted help from those best placed to provide it. Sooner or later, we will all simply stop responding to consultations and will have no heart to contribute to the parliamentary process.
Furthermore, this Bill has given birth to a fresh debate over wider crofting legislation. I have long been of the view that crofting legislation should be left alone for a time, to bed in, and to allow a body of case law to become established. However, in light of the 2013 Bill I have changed my view, and I have called for an overhaul of all crofting legislation. The numerous problems which have become apparent with the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010, coupled with the prospect of yet more impenetrable sections (when a few simple sections would have achieved the same effect), made me despair that the current framework could ever work. There are simply too many problems to overcome; the decrofting uncertainty was merely the tip of the iceberg. I do not suggest another evidence-gathering committee in the mould of Professor Shucksmith, but it is both possible and desirable to deconstruct the legislation and rebuild it so that it makes sense and is, to use a phrase so beloved of government, ‘fit for purpose’.
Rob Gibson MSP appeared to have taken offence at my labelling of the legislation as a “mess” and a “shambles” but I stand by my remarks, and I refute his comment that crofting law is merely “complex”. Most areas of law are complex, and solicitors are trained to operate in such an environment, but crofting law since the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 – which his Government must take responsibility for and cannot be blamed on inheritance – has become incomprehensible, not merely complex. I urge Mr Gibson to listen to the suggestions offered by experienced professionals, rather than taking the defensive stance we saw in the debating chamber yesterday afternoon.
Eilidh I. M. Ross